Posted on : Thursday August 23, 2018

Katie Lee of Sanctuary Columbus (Ohio) Church (left) visits with The Banquet Network’s Michael Crawford, Hunter Brown, Amberle Brown and Tom Stolle, after their seminar, “Jesus and The Margins: How Disability Intersects with Race & Poverty.”

By Shannon Baker

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Recently, Tom Stolle contrasted his family situation—a family with a son with severe autism who frequently experiences violent aggressions but who also has a great support system and medical insurance—with the situation of families he called “economically disabled.”

“I want you to imagine a family that has a child like my son but the parents don’t have good jobs. Maybe one of them failed on the marriage,” Stolle said. “They have no health insurance or marginal coverage. They don’t know where to get help because they have almost no help from anyone … no assistance from local law enforcement and very few, if any, people praying for them.”

In this scenario, it would be almost impossible not to be poor, he said. In fact, approximately one out of five Americans affected by disability lives in poverty, and the numbers are more severe for African Americans affected by disabilities.

“The number is closer to one in three living in poverty,” he said.

“There does exist a privilege, and I know some people are uncomfortable saying that word. I’m not,” Stolle asserted. “There does exist a privilege that many families do not have and statistically, if you are an African-American family, you’re more likely not to have.”

Accordingly, he said, individuals affected by disabilities must be loved but they also need resources and opportunity. “Having a disability does not make a person somehow less!”

Stolle, chief financial officer and chief operating officer for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, was one of three speakers who addressed why the banquet parable of Luke 14 includes “the poor” with “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” at the “Jesus & the Margins: How Disability Intersects with Poverty & Race” seminar sponsored by The Banquet Network at Sanctuary Columbus Church in Columbus, Ohio, on August 4.

He also examined questions, such as “Why are certain racial groups disproportionately affected by disability?“ and “How can the church follow Christ to these margins?”

In his message, Stolle noted that society tends to economically and relationally disable others through “attitudes of superiority and judgment” and “oppression.”

That treatment sometimes leads to a “physical disability” because those who have less resources receive less care, he said, pointing to how scripture clearly says to do the opposite: “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows” (Isaiah 1:17 NLT).

It’s obvious that the church should be a leader in assisting the poor, the sick, those with disabilities—and also in race relations, he stressed.

“There is no shortage of need in the community of Americans affected by disability,” he said, explaining that according to the U.S. Census, almost 58 million Americans—or 19 percent of the population—face disability.

“What many with disability have in common—regardless of how old they are or young they are, regardless of their ethnicity or their gender—is being poor, living in poverty, or right at the poverty line,” he decried.

The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that only 41 percent of individuals aged 21 to 64 who are disabled are in the workforce.

“Here’s what we understand: If you don’t have a job, you probably don’t earn money, and if you don’t earn money, you’re probably poor … If you don’t have a disability and you’re between the ages of 21 and 64, 79 percent of you have jobs. That’s a massive disparity!”

And among people aged 15 to 64 with severe disabilities, almost 11 percent experience persistent poverty, compared to 3.8 percent of those who have no disability, he said.

But “as bad as it is to have no money, it’s worse to have nobody,” he added, “and we as the church cannot turn our backs on people. We cannot do that!”

Stolle cited a July 2013 Christianity Today article by researcher Ed Stetzer who said, at the time, he could not find any substantial research on how churches are ministering to persons with disabilities.

“I want you to consider that a major voice of national Christian leadership acknowledges that we don’t know how our churches are reaching individuals or families affected by disability,” Stolle said, noting the church, by its inaction, is demonstrating its lack of care and concern for these special individuals and families.

Moreover, of the 40 million Americans who live in poverty, 18.5 million live in extreme poverty. Another 5.3 million live in absolute poverty (which equates to Third World conditions).

But God is bigger than that, Stolle said, referencing James 2:1-4, which forbids special treatment for the rich.

“I want to share with you that even in the diagnosis of autism of young people, African-Americans are marginalized,” he continued, pointing to a 2007 study by the University of Pennsylvania.

“These researchers concluded African-American children had 2.6 times the odds of receiving some other diagnosis than autism compared to white children. Additionally, of those children who were misdiagnosed, African-American children were also 2.4 times more likely to be incorrectly diagnosed with a conduct disorder than white children,” he shared.

“I don’t believe that the doctors were intentionally misdiagnosing, but I do believe that their latent biases are being revealed in their diagnosis,” Stolle said. “The disparity and diagnosis are just too large to be by chance. We are depraved, sinful human beings who must daily watch our hearts and minds, must daily check our attitudes at the door, and ask Jesus, ‘God, to help us as a church.’”

He added, “See, the bottom line is: We are all called as the church to stand up for all people who can’t stand up for themselves.”

In particular, pointing to Proverbs 22:23, Stolle said he’s concerned about those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Don’t walk on the poor just because they’re poor, and don’t use your position to crush the weak, Because God will come to their defense; the life you took, he’ll take from you and give back to them” (Proverbs 22:23, The Message).

“Right isn’t always easy, but it’s always right,” Stolle stressed. “You got to hear a little bit about my son Jimmy. There’s a level of suffering. Unless you live it, you don’t understand, but these families are waiting for people to help them.”

Stolle continued, “I will tell you, in my life, I’ve had more assistance and help in my house from people that do not attend church than from people that do … I’m not saying this to be judgmental. That’s just a fact. So, shouldn’t we do better?”

He related how he often looked upon the poor neighborhoods that surrounded Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins hospitals where his son was given life-changing medical attention.

“I would routinely think to myself, ‘God, thank You for blessing us with the care my son needs,’ but at the same time feel really bad because it was evident that many would never receive that.”

Acknowledging that Christians can’t fix all the “world’s ills,” he pleaded, “Each of us, by being obedient to God, can make some difference one day at a time.”

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